How to Survive Remote Work During the Winter

4 Tips to Keep the Walls from Closing In

Vancouver had a snow day on Tuesday and the kids spent the day sledding while I worked. Yes. I was jealous.

Working from home means opting out of morning rush hour. This is a huge bonus when the weather outside is frightful. On Tuesday we had a heavy snow event that closed the schools and stranded buses on bridges. I was very happy to miss all of that mess.

Of course, there’s a less positive side to that privilege. If you aren’t careful, you can get to an unhealthy mental place where you both hate the inside of your house but have no motivation to leave. If you’re in this boat, there are things you can do that will help. Here are some ideas that have worked for me. Feel free to use them as jumping off points for your own troubleshooting toolbox.

Get Outside Anyway

Some people enjoy rambling walks. They don’t need an excuse to get outdoors. That isn’t me. I need a specific destination or a workout plan to get me out the door. This is why I’m always on some kind of run plan, usually with a race at the end to keep me focused. Not wanting to die during my spring half marathon kept me running through the rain and snow of 2016.

It wasn’t until the Spring of the following year that I realized the other benefit to running in nasty weather. I didn’t mind the weather so much because I was out in it. You would think that running in icy rain would demoralize me. Nope. Somehow going for a jog in the rain makes me feel like the weather isn’t winning. As a bonus, there are fewer people to dodge on the sidewalk.

Not all places have temperate winters. I have several friends in Winnipeg, where temperatures can easily get to -50 Celsius. That’s not something you linger in. If this describes your weather, you may want to consider a gym membership. Heck, I have a gym membership and my weather only dipped to -10c.

Pick a Second Office

Your second office could be a coffee shop, a library, or a co-working space. Take some time during your non-work hours to investigate new places and try out their wifi. And don’t be afraid to get creative. I once went to my local yarn store early and worked for a little while before the weekly knit night. I’ve worked in bars. If you try this, remember to support the establishment by purchasing something. And make sure it’s okay for you to be there. Don’t be that creepy person squatting in the aisle.

These first two ideas assume you can leave your house. Sometimes a blizzard comes along or you have to care for sick family members, and you can’t leave. These next two tips are for you.

Build Stations

When my children were in kindergarten, they had something called ‘stations’ spread across the classroom. These were spaces with a specific activity all set up. All the children had to do was go there and begin playing.

Consider setting up stations in your house. I have my guitar on a stand next to my couch, ready to play. My purse is a mobile knitting station. I have at least one project in there at all times. Sometimes you just need to walk away from your computer for a minute. Try placing a project in a different room or a different part of your work space. Separating your hobby from your work area can help you “leave” work when you can’t leave your home.

Some enterprising soul is reading this thinking ‘I should clean my house or do laundry if I’m taking a work break.’ If cleaning makes your soul sing, go for it. Cleaning doesn’t feel like a break to me, so I focus on other things.

Take a Virtual Coffee Break

Sometimes your house isn’t the problem. The issue is that you need human contact. Consider arranging a video call with a friend or colleague. If you want to talk to people outside your organization, you can join an online networking event like Networkplaceless. Or spend time talking to people via social media. I’ve met people on Twitter and ended up setting up meetings so we can talk about remote work in real time.

Working from home has a lot of positives, but it also has a unique set of challenges. One of those challenges is feeling marooned in your home during the winter months. The good news is that you can ease those claustrophobic feelings. Try these suggestions. Come up with some of your own. Do you have something that works for you? I’d love to hear about it.

Anniversaries and Un-Resolutions

A New Year Doesn’t Have to Mean New Business

Sometimes the best resolution is no resolution at all. Photo by Sonam Yadav from Pexels

Happy New Year friends! The last couple of weeks have been long-ish stretches of quiet time interspersed with short bursts of crazy. On January 4th we celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary with a family party.

Our party theme was Minecraft Farm. We bought a Llama pinata, then beat it up and took all it’s candy.

I knit and crocheted many things for the kids.

My child calls these stuffies Mr. Kitty Hat and Blue

Slowly Walking Down the Hall Faster Than a Cannon Ball

In between making stuffed animals, I completed interviews for various outlets interested in remote work. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you saw the post from Digital Nomad Sage last week. Another interview came out today from Remoters. I was also on the radio with Money Matters based in Houston. I’m on the radio again next week with Drive Thru HR.

I’ve been simultaneously on vacation AND working like a maniac. I took 2 weeks off from my day job so I could relax with the kids’ during their winter break. I scheduled that time off 8 months ago, before I knew the date my book would launch. Friends, my book launched today.

I nearly spent my entire vacation working on book stuff. Launching a book resembles planning a wedding. There are a lot of moving pieces and different players that work together before the main event. My book launch to-do list runneth-ed over. (We’ll just pretend ‘runneth-ed’ is a word.)

There’s a Fine Line Between Optimism and Delusion

I planned to cram a lot of writing time into the two weeks I was off. I use the word ‘plan’ loosely here. It was more of a wish list that had nothing to do with reality. I was going to: 1) Read a lot of research on psychological safety, 2) Work out every day, 3) Write three articles about remote work, 4) Spend quality time with my kids in between 5) Planning our family party and 6) Launching my book.

Then my oldest kid got sick on the first day of winter break. Shortly thereafter the second one got sick. And the rain of Vancouver closed in. Instead of focusing on my writing, I spent the first days of winter vacation knitting on the couch in between taking care of the kids. It should have frustrated me more than it did. But the fact was, I was mentally depleted. I needed time to let my brain go fallow. So I made the last-minute decision to work in short sprints so I could spend the majority of my time lazing about with the kids.

Who Says You Have to Vow to Resolve Anything in 2020?

Taking a break is hard if you’ve been running yourself ragged. It feels weird to just do…nothing for stretches of time. At least it was for me. I am a woman of action. It’s especially hard at the beginning of the year when everyone wants to hear your New Year’s Resolutions.

But you know what? New Year’s Resolutions aren’t the boss of you. If this is where you’re at right now–mentally depleted–the best resolution might be no resolutions in 2020. Or if you can’t quite do that, consider ‘take better breaks’ as your resolution of choice. My resolutions are usually hedonistic. One year I resolved to eat awesome cookies. Several years ago I went in search of better cheese. I wasn’t going to pick a resolution at all this year, but ‘take better breaks’ is growing on me. I’m going to sit with the idea in the back of my brain for the month of January and see how I like it.

Do you make hedonistic or subversive New Year’s resolutions? I’d love to hear about them.

6 Books that Influenced my Decade of Remote Work

Books! Books! Books! Everybody! Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Greetings on the last day of 2019! Before we leave this decade and enter the ’20s, I wanted to note some of the books that influenced the way I engage with people in the remote space. This was the decade that kicked off my remote adventure, after all. What better way to send it out in style than to talk about books?

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Before you can be a great manager, first you must learn to manage yourself. That is doubly true for managers of remote workers. So much of our employee’s experience of the company comes directly through us. Kahneman’s book changed the way I thought about trusting my gut.

From Values to Action by Harry M. Jansen

There are a couple of reasons I liked this book. First, it actually shows you how to translate the values you want to live by into action. It’s not only an idea book, but also a how-to manual. Jansen provides a framework of questions instead of a ‘one-size-fits-no one’ recipe for success. I don’t use the whole framework, but I do I try to end the day by asking myself if I’ve done everything I said I was going to do. If not, why not? If find the questions clarifying.

Platform: Get Noticed in Noisy World by Michael Hyatt

When the first iteration of my book was nearing it’s publication date, my publisher’s marketing team told me I needed to go post on Twitter every day to get the word out about my book. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Fortunately I like to research, and I found this book and the one that follows. I listened to ‘Platform’ on Audible. Hyatt read his own book, and I enjoyed his energy. This book is like your big brother giving you advice with a big shot of ‘you can do it’ cheer leading on the side.

30 Day Book Marketing Challenge by Rachel Thompson

If Hyatt was my cheerleader, Rachel Thompson was my coach. Her book is half the reason I didn’t send out a dozen ‘buy my book!’ tweets before giving up on Twitter entirely. Instead I’ve met many lovely people, and had enjoyable conversations. That’s what social media is supposed to be about anyway. Conversations.

Creative Quest by Questlove

I picked up ‘Creative Quest’ at an airport bookstore on a whim. I’m so glad I did. If this book had a secret subtitle, it would be ‘the working person’s guide to creativity.’ I especially love the way he describes creativity as being open to things vs digging deep inside yourself. As someone who produces researched articles pretty regularly, I am always looking for things outside of my own head to spark the next article. It was interesting seeing how Questlove’s process works.

The Remix: How to Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace by Lindsey Pollak

I was pretty excited about Pollak’s book when it came out. At Kaplan, I manage at least three different generations of people–Boomers, GenX, and Millennials. I was hoping ‘The Remix’ would provide an overview of the differences between groups, and it didn’t disappoint. It has some great ideas for communicating across different platforms, too.

In one way or another these books influenced how I interact in the remote space. Do you have any books that shaped your online identity? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

3 Ways Remote Workers Can End the Year Well

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels

Most of us won’t finish December as billionaire super models. But you CAN close out the year as a hero for your employees, you clients, and yourself if you take time to do these three things.

Post Your Year End/Holiday Hours

One of the many perks of remote work is the ability to hire (and sell to) people in different parts of the world. But different countries have different traditions. The end of December is a holiday in some, but not all, parts of the world. Post your hours on your website, email/phone out-of-office message, and everywhere else your clients and colleagues may try to reach with you.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that people will remember that it’s a holiday in your country. Canada celebrates Thanksgiving a month before the United States. I’m from the US, and I work for a company primarily based in the US, and I still forget about US Thanksgiving because no one around me celebrates it. Your client in Qatar shouldn’t wonder why it’s taking you so long to respond to the email he sent on Christmas. Post your hours.

Send a Year End Message

The savvy remote worker looks for any excuse to connect with clients and colleagues. The end of the year is a great pretext to communicate with everyone in your network. Your message doesn’t have to be long or particularly masterful so long as it’s sincere. On Tuesday I sent the teachers who work with me a short email, and included this graphic I made in Canva.

Is this a work of staggering genius? Hardly. But I wanted my teachers to know I care. Not everybody celebrates Christmas, but cat memes are universal. Image is from the free version of Canva.com.

It didn’t take long to put this together in Canva and add it to my email. The writer in me cringes a little at the wording–it comes across as ho-hum to my internal editor–but a sincere ho-hum message is better than no message at all, when you want to make sure people know you like working with them.

If you have more time to craft a nicer message than the one I produced, do so. But if you don’t, don’t let perfect become the enemy of good. If you like this idea but feel overwhelmed just thinking about making a meme, feel free to use mine. I won’t tell.

Choose A Year End Tradition

The first two tips in this article focus on ending the year right for your clients and colleagues. This last tip is designed to help you build a meaningful transition into the new year.

Transitions were one of the things I didn’t think about before I went remote. I am so happy that I gave up my commute. It’s given me hours back into my day. But I missed the way a commute created a natural transition into and out of work, so I had to make up my own transitions.

The end of one year and the beginning of another is a big transition. As someone who works in an office of one, it’s pretty easy to ignore it in favor of hitting the items on my to-do list.

I would suggest that taking a moment to ceremonially end your year is good for your mental health. The end of the year can be a fraught time for some. It’s all to easy to think that if you haven’t ended the year (or the decade) as a billionaire super model, or cured cancer, you must be defective. Implementing a small year-end ceremony is a nice way to commemorate what you have done, and start the new year with a clean slate.

Your ceremony doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. If you can afford to spend a week in Tahiti to clear your head, great. Personally, I need something a little more cost-efficient. So I clean my office. Cleaning isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I do like the symbolism of wiping the dust from the old year out of my office before the new year shows up. I am literally giving myself the gift of a clean start.

I spend the time remembering the things I did in the year that I’d like to do again. I think about the things I didn’t get a chance to do that I might work into the new year. And when I finish my cleaning, I say (to myself) ‘I declare this year closed.’ It’s a simple ceremony that works for me.

Life is messy, but your year end doesn’t have to be. If you keep these three tips in mind, you can close your year in an orderly fashion, and start the new one with a clean slate.

Sometimes No News is Bad News

This post comes to you from Northern California. Photo by Tae Fuller from Pexels

Or, why there is no how-to remote article today

There’s a lot going on both in Remota HQ, and with my family personally. Last Wednesday evening, just as I put the finishing touches on last Thursday’s blog post, we got a call from a sick family member. This relative hasn’t authorized me to tell personal details so I am going to skip over the particulars and move to the next bit, which is this: after that phone call we made a plan to drive to California.

For some reason I like knowing that I can get out of Dodge with very little notice. Maybe it’s because I grew up in California, with the threat of the next big earthquake always sort of looming in the background. Maybe it’s hearing about all the fires and evacuations that have spread across the state. In any event, I’m glad we can pull everyone out of their routine and go when we need to.

I could have chosen to work on this trip. My job is remote and I can carry it all in my laptop, but that’s not why we took the kids out of school and drove for two days. This week, I’m focusing on family.

So that’s why you don’t have an article from me today. However, I can offer you this link to an article from N.F. Mendoza for Tech Republic. She interviewed me (as well as some others) about ‘The Top 13 Ways to Manage Remote Employees.’ It’s a solid checklist of things to think about and practice if you want your remote employees to be efficient and engaged. Check it out.

One Big Mix

If life is music, then sometimes you have to step up and mix different tracks together like a DJ. Photo by Isabella Mendes from Pexels

Access to 2 new articles and a story that didn’t make it into print

It’s been a busy week here at Remota HQ. I live in Canada and work for a US company, which means I had two days to dive into my writing. That means I have 2 articles and a deleted scene to share with you. Two of my remote work pieces went live in the last five days. One of them is behind a paywall, but I have a friend link for you. Anyone who reads this blog is a friend of mine.

Turn ‘Them’ into ‘Us:’ How to Make Remote Workers Part of the Team

I wrote this for ‘The Startup.’ If you’re part of a partially remote, partially office-bound team, this one is for you. If you’ve been looking for a way to tell your boss that you can’t hear half of what’s said in team meetings because your office colleagues all crowd around one computer, now you don’t have to. You can just send this article. Remote employee managers: this is what your employees wish you knew.

Working from Home During the Holidays

This appeared in CEO World on December 3rd. If you work remotely, you’ve had to juggle working in your home. You probably have go-to strategies that you use to set boundaries with the people who live with you. This article delivers 5 tips to help you work when you’re visiting family who don’t understand what ‘working from home’ means.

It wasn’t until just now that I realized both of these articles talk about mixing in one way or another. In one we’re mixing on-site and off-site employees. In the other, we’re mixing family with work. Hopefully the advice listed will let you adeptly DJ your own life. Up next is something that was pulled from the mix.

The Story that Didn’t Make it into ‘Working from Home.’

When I first envisioned this piece, I planned to start with my own experience trying working from my mom’s house. However, I’m part of a remote work Slack chat, and when I put out a request for people to contribute personal experiences, I received far more than I expected. I don’t know why I was so surprised–the reason I visit that group is because they’re intelligent, generous people. They were simply acting like they always do.

In any event, I scrapped my original idea and reworked the article to fit in as many of the pithy tips as possible. Here’s the story I cut:

It’s the summer of 2010. I’m sitting in my step-dad’s home office, presenting at a work meeting via video call. All of a sudden my audience erupts in laughter. I don’t know why. It isn’t until I hear “Here you go, Auntie Teresa,” that I realize my nephew is standing behind me, mug of tea in one hand, and plate of toast in the other.

My husband, baby daughter and I had driven up to San Jose from Los Angeles the night before to see family, but I needed to work part of the time to extend our visit.

It took several interruptions spread across many days before I figured out that I was the reason I was getting interrupted. My step dad works in sales. When he works from home, he’s either making phone calls to schedule appointments, or completing paperwork. He makes zero video calls.

Epiphany

I hadn’t explained to my mother what I do when I work from home. So she assumed my work day would look a lot like my step-dad’s. She did everything she could to make sure I had a good working conditions: 1) She kicked my step-dad out of his own office. 2) She told everyone to be quiet when they walked into the room, and wait until I wasn’t talking before speaking to me.

If my work had been the same as my step dad’s, then this would have been the perfect set up. Instead, it was a learning experience. I learned that telling people that I need to work from 10 until 2, for example, isn’t enough.

Help Family Visualize Your Work Day

If you want to work with family around, they need to know when it’s okay to talk to you. Often you also have to explain how much the camera can see. Fortunately for me, when my nephew walked into my video meeting, all he did was make faces at the camera. When my company first went remote, a colleague’s partner walked behind him while we were holding a video meeting, wearing a very brief towel. There are some sides of people’s partners you just shouldn’t see.

Help your family avoid embarrassment and explain how you do your work.

Once my mother knew I was on video calls with people who could see when family walked in the door, she kept everyone–including my step-dad*– out of the office. I could have avoided so much frustration with one conversation. Learn from my mistake.

So that’s the story that didn’t make it into my article ‘Working from Home During the Holidays.’ Hopefully you find it helpful if you have to mix extended family with work. May your family not flash anyone on camera, nor interrupt you when you’re trying to focus.

*For the record, while I did feel sort of bad about colonizing my step-dad’s office, I didn’t feel bad enough to give up the space until I was done with it. This probably makes me a bad person. Ah well.

10 Signs that Your Remote-Work Conversion is Complete

If at least two of these ring true, then baby, you’re a remote worker now.

Photo by Canva Studios via Pexels.com
  1. The most exciting purchase you make on Black Friday is a wifi extender.
  2. You know the four closest public spaces with working internet, and the best time to find a seat.
  3. Coordinating a meeting with colleagues who live in three different countries is no big deal, but the thought of taking the bus during rush hour makes you die a little inside.
  4. You’re out in the physical world and you wonder why nobody mutes their mic before coughing.
  5. ‘Work shoes’ are for other people.
  6. You suspect that your immune system has completely broken down because you no longer get exposed to the annual office cold.
  7. Before going to a networking event, you have to Google what ‘business appropriate’ means from the waist down.
  8. You forget that talking to your computer is frowned on in public.
  9. Some of your closest workmates are people you’ve never met in the physical world.
  10. Science says we can’t multitask, but you can trade instant messages with your coworker while also participating in the weekly team meeting.
Photo by Pixaby via Pexels.com

We are the remote. Resistance is futile.

Remote Book Relaunch

A Peak Behind the book publishing curtain

You need a lot of fuel to get a rocket into space. You need nearly the same amount of caffeine to launch a book. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.com

My book for remote employees is going to launch with Simon Schuster in January 2020. I’ve known about this for some time, but we had to hit a certain point in the book launch process before I could share details with you. Today, as a thank you for sticking with me during the great blog post slowdown of October/November 2019, I want to give you a peak behind the book launch curtain.

The Book is Getting a New Title

My co-authors and I signed a book contract that says our publisher has the right to change the title if necessary. This is The Way Things Go in traditional publishing, and I have no problem with it. Titles aren’t my forte. I don’t know how a person can write a book and post articles (nearly) every week for more than a year and still have trouble coming up with good titles, but that’s me in a nutshell.

We’re really lucky that our original indie publisher 750 is committed to keeping its authors looped in as much as possible. Instead, they gave us Simon Schuster’s feedback and let us propose another title.

If you or anyone you know is thinking of writing a business book, Simon Schuster thinks that the best business book titles are clear. The title should not only tell you what the book is about, but who it’s for. I love our old title ‘Secrets of the Remote Workforce,’ but that doesn’t tell you who the book is for. We fixed that with the new title.

Is the title of the book sexy? No. But it does tell you what you’re going to get and I like that.

May I present Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams. Holly, Mike and I came up with this title the same way we wrote the book. We proposed different titles, talked through what we liked and disliked, and came up with something together.

For those who aren’t familiar with the book, we discuss how to survive and thrive as a remote employee. We cover how to set up your office, how to combat loneliness, and how go grow in your career when you work from an office of one.

The Team Has a Publicist

Publishing a book is a little surreal. Most people have opinions about the things they’ve done. Some of us decide to write a book about what we know. We believe we wrote a book with a lot of useful information to share with remote employees. We spent a lot of time making sure we covered remote-specific topics. On some level, though, it’s still surprising that a traditional publisher agreed to release our book out into the world.

Getting a publicist brings the surreal feeling to another level. We have access to an expert to help us get the word out about our book. That’s pretty neat. I collect skills the way crazy cat ladies collect cats, and I can’t wait to see what I learn from this experience. We’re working on a few things that aren’t quite ready to talk about yet, but I look forward to sharing them with you in due course.

While you CAN have too many cats, you can’t have too many skills. Anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.com

Did you like this sneak peak? Leave me a comment to let me know either way. Is there anything about book publishing you would love to know about? Leave that question in the comments. If there’s enough interest in the business side of book publishing I’ll post other tidbits as we gear up to launch the book.

We Can’t Solve Burnout Culture with an Email Ban

Give people solid reasons for changing their over-working ways and they will do so.

Photo by Ashutosh Jaiswal from Pexels

People Problems Need People-Centric Solutions.

The BBC published this article discussing why banning email outside of work hours might do more harm than good. The arguments focused on why highly anxious or highly ambitious people might need to access work email outside of work hours.

The bigger question is why are employees anxious if they can’t check email after work? Why does an ambitious go-getter need to log long hours in order to get promoted? There is a difference between occasionally working longer hours in order to finish a project, and chronic hyper-connectedness. Failure to disconnect from work is a symptom. If we really want people to disconnect and recharge, we need to address the root cause of the behavior.

To better illustrate this, let’s pretend that you are at a friend’s house for dinner. You’re both in the kitchen–you are cutting up vegetables and your friend is tenderizing meat with a mallet. Suddenly your friend takes the mallet and repeatedly pounds his hand with it.

There are a lot of things you would do in that moment. You might shout ‘stop!’ You might wrestle away the mallet.

Under no circumstances would you think you solved the problem by taking away the device your friend used to harm himself. Until someone uncovers why your friend did what he did, you can’t be sure he’ll never do it again.

Failing to Disconnect from Work is Also Harmful

Working all the time isn’t as instantly (and spectacularly) destructive as pounding your hand with a mallet, but it’s still harmful. People who don’t disconnect enough are prime candidates for burnout. According Salvagioni, et all 2017 in the article ‘Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies:

Burnout was a significant predictor of the following physical consequences: hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years. 

These consequences are just as harmful–if not more so–than hitting your hand with a hammer. And getting at the root causes of burnout in your company will require a thorough diagnosis.

How to Get at the Root Causes of Burnout

Employees experience burnout for a variety of reasons, just as people get sick for a variety of reasons. Going back to our earlier example, a doctor would treat your friend by asking a series of questions and making observations. A leader interested in delivering an effective solution for burnout can do the same.

It’s tempting to assume we know what’s causing the burnout and skip this step. Perhaps we have a lot of experience leading people. Perhaps we’re burned out because we receive too many emails and assume that solving our problem will solve everyone else’s, too.

As a leader, your experience at work is different from that of your employees. Your pain points may be different as well. Don’t assume you know what the problem is.

However, there are some things you CAN assume.

Assume Your Employees Know the Consequences of Overworking

People understand that working too much is unhealthy. There is an abundance of information on the consequences of burnout. Many major news feeds covered the story when the World Health Organization ruled that burnout is a medical diagnosis.

If most people know that overworking is unhealthy, then the next question we need to ask is why are they doing it anyway? It’s tempting to assume that they’re working off of faulty information. This leads to our next assumption.

Assume Your Employees Have a Solid Reason for What They Do

Most of our decisions are self-protective on some level. We wear nice clothes to protect our dignity and social status. We count to ten in our head to stop ourselves from saying something that will ruin a relationship. And we work too much because we think doing so protects us in some way. Or we are being overtly rewarded for doing so.

This is why simply implementing an email ban won’t work in the long run. If your people are convinced that they need to work long hours to keep their jobs or get promoted, they will continue to do so.

For many years, Kaplan had a “summer hours” policy. During the summer months, you could elect to work a little longer Monday through Thursday, and take off early on Friday. I took advantage of this policy for many summers, until I was given a new manager. This manager claimed that the summer hours policy was only for employees who worked in an actual office, not for remote workers. Therefore, her expectation was that our team would not participate.

I knew that manager was wrong. I tried to point out that the other remote teams were taking advantage of summer hours, and we should too. Unfortunately this manager wouldn’t listen. When faced with the choice of defying my new boss or working longer than necessary, you can guess which decision I made.

Your employees have a solid reason for overworking. They will share this information with you under certain circumstances.

Create Protected Spaces for Honest Feedback

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Telling your employer that you’re overworked feels risky for many people. As a leader, you can minimize the risk of honesty. It isn’t enough to say ‘please be honest,’ or ‘we value your honesty.’ You may foster an open and inclusive company, but your employees may be carrying baggage from previous employers. Or you may have a problem manager that you don’t know about yet.

Even if neither of these things are true, you must stay conscious of the power dynamic between you and your employees. You have the power to fire them. Your employees will always keep that in mind when deciding what to tell you.

One of the easiest ways to minimize risk for your employees is to use an anonymous survey. If you lead a large company then it may be easiest to retain a third party to handle creating a survey for you. If your company is small or there are budget concerns, you can build your own survey. Consider using a format that allows you to collect nuanced answers. I personally like ‘rate how much you agree with the following statements’ sorts of questions. This is what they look like:

Rate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements 1 = disagree, 2 = neither agree or disagree, and 3 = agree

  1. In my company, you have to work long hours to get promoted.
  2. I have a reasonable workload.
  3. My immediate manager cares about my work/life balance.

You can get more complicated and use a wider scale to ask if people “strongly” agree or disagree. Before you do so, ask yourself if the benefit is worth the added time it takes to create a more complicated survey. If this is your first time surveying your employees, understand that you may not get your questions right the first time. You might even consider adding a question at the end that asks ‘what other questions should we ask?’ to speed up your learning curve. As a bonus, you can learn a lot from the questions people suggest you add to the survey.

Everyone Has Time to Survey Their People

Back in my Faculty Manager days, I sent my direct reports an anonymous, annual survey in December. This was completely separate from the big engagement survey my company conducts every year. The big survey asks a lot of questions about many subjects–the point of my survey was to figure out how I could improve as a manager.

Your employees know what you have to work on. Mine were no different. Once I processed the information, I always did two things: 1) I shared the results with my people and 2) told them what I would work on in the following year. They could judge for themselves if I did what I said I was going to do.

I had anywhere between 50-100 direct reports spread across the state of California. Even with my hectic schedule–and no added administrative support– I found the time to create, deliver, and respond to the results in my employee survey. You can, too.

Employee surveys are humbling experiences. Sometimes you’re humbled by the trust your employees place in you as a leader. Other times you’re humbled by the things you have to work on. Often it’s a mix of both. But if you’re serious about identifying the cause of burnout at your company, don’t skip this step.

Share the Results and Talk About Next Steps

When you’re fixing culture problems, it’s really important to bring people along in every step of the process. Share the group results. Your employees are dying to know if everyone else feels the way they do. They’re anxious to see how you react to what the group has said. Choose your words carefully. You want to make it clear that you understand the problem, and are committed to fixing it. This is a huge opportunity to built your employees’ trust and respect for you and your company. Don’t blow it.

Then let your actions back up your words. Give the good assignments to the people who go home on time. Promote the people who fight for reasonable work loads. Bonus the teams that use all of their vacation time. And retrain (or rehome) the managers who perpetuate poor work/life balance.

Give people a solid reason to change their habits, and they will do so.

Burnout culture is a people problem that requires a people-centric solution. You CAN get at the root cause of the problem. Approach the process with humility and honesty–and put your actions where your mouth is. You’ll not only change your work culture, but also create a team that trusts you and will follow wherever you lead.

What I’m Learning About Psychological Safety

A tree with autumn foliage next to a beach.
Autumn at a Vancouver beach.

Happy mid-October everyone! Vancouver has reset back to normal, and we’re in for a week of rain. I spent a large portion of the long weekend soaking in the last of the beautiful Autumn sunshine before the rain moved in. It was Thanksgiving in Canada this past Monday and I was thankful for the weather. My kids found a leaf pile and I discovered that I never want to get into a leaf fight with them. They take no prisoners.

I also participated in the first ever Remote Work 5k, put together by Cantilever and Workplaceless. It was big fun. We all jumped into a zoom room at the beginning of the race, and then ran the course of our choice. I won recognition for Coldest run! I hope this is the first of many such virtual races because it was fun completing a 5k with my fellow remote workers. Some of us ran, some walked or hiked, and at least one of us swam the distance.

I also spent time studying psychological safety. A quick internet search showed that I should start with Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. Her research is at the foundation of this subject. This is the link to the article if you want to read what I’m reading.

This article represents some of the early work Edmondson has done on the subject, and few things stood out:

Psychological safety leads to learning behaviour.

When I started this research I thought psychological safety led to high performing teams. Based on what the article hyperlinked above, it really has more to do with team learning. A team that can learn quickly may lead to high performance under certain conditions. If your team deals with a high degree of uncertainty and complexity, then you want people who can learn and adapt. Most (if not all) knowledge work falls into this category. However, if your team doesn’t work in these sorts of conditions then learning isn’t a good predictor of high performance.

As an aside, I believe we should create psychologically safe spaces at work anyway. It’s the right thing to do. But the problems you’ll prevent are turnover and burnout.

Context support and leadership can impact psychological safety.

This one sounded like a real no-brainer to me. If you give your team the tools and information they need (context support) and act as a coach who sets a direction and helps people get there, then they should feel safe to learn and experiment.

The article I read focused more on whether psychological safety leads to learning, so Edmondson didn’t spend a lot of time proving that these were THE factors that lead to feeling safe. She merely said that there seemed to be a positive relationship between those factors and a healthy team dynamic. Still, there were still some interesting details. I was surprised to see that there were teams who felt safe even if one of these factors was missing. She concludes by saying that more research was needed on what causes psychological safety.

I suspect that it’s a lot harder to experience psychological safety in the remote workforce if you have a micro-managing boss. This paper was written in 1999 and Edmondson studied co-located teams. It’s entirely possible for a team to bond over the shared experience of a bad boss if they work in an office. I’ve lived that experience. The boss says something regrettable, and the team makes eye contact behind his back. Next thing you know everyone is taking lunch together so they can compare notes and vent.

It’s a lot harder to do that as a remote worker. So many of your interactions happen one on one. It’s one thing to make eye contact with your coworker when you share an experience. It’s quite another to call your co worker and ask if they like the boss. I have some theories about how to create psychological safety in the remote workforce despite having a bad boss. I can’t wait to see if some else has studied this as I continue my research.

Do you work in a team that is remote and psychologically safe? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment on this post or contact me directly. I’d love to hear from you.